LOUDON — If you’re like I am and, as the Muppets’ Sam the Eagle would say, you almost certainly are, your reaction to an offer to drive a stock car, at speed, on a racetrack, would be something along the lines of “Hell yes, and what took you so long to ask me?”
See, the thing is, I’ve been a journalist in the Lakes Region for a long time, and I’ve covered lots of motorsports in that time. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize myself as a NASCAR fan, but I am interested in the pursuit of humans to operate machinery as fast as possible. So I was in when the good folks at New Hampshire Motor Speedway sent an email inviting our newsroom to participate in the 4th Annual Media Challenge featuring news outlets that cover races at the track – races like the one coming up this Sunday, July 18, the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 that is part of the NASCAR Cup Series.
That “301” refers to the number of laps each driver will take around the 1.058-mile oval course on Sunday. The Media Challenge, however, was decidedly less ambitious. We were told we would first take a few laps as a passenger while a professional driver put a stock car – pretty darn close to those which will be driven there on Sunday – at speed. Then we would have three laps behind the wheel, trying to put down a faster lap than any of the other media members.
I wasn’t so much excited by the prospect of driving the course. I mean, go straight then turn left, how hard could that be, right? What I really wanted to do was experience the vehicle, purpose-built for speed and nothing else.
I regretted my decision almost immediately.
I’m not sure what I expected by getting into the passenger seat of a race car with a skilled driver sitting to my left. But I now know what he was expecting to do, which was to demonstrate what the car was capable of doing – which is going very fast. The Speedway’s oval course may be a mile long, and it looks big when you’re standing still. Put the hammer down on a 450-horsepower car, though, and those corners come up awful fast.
So, shouldn’t we, like, slow down for them? It turns out the answer is "no," and I didn’t like that answer. At least not at first. Halfway through my first lap as a passenger I pledged to myself that, as soon as it was safe to do so, I was going to leave the car, politely thank my hosts, and leave the property before the tears sprang forth.
Something funny happened by the end of my second lap, though. After consistently not crashing into the corners, I got a feel for what the car could do, and when I got out of the passenger seat and prepared to test my own skill, I was still nervous, but no longer terrified.
If someone tells you that you’re going to be getting into a stock car in a couple of weeks, you need to start eating nothing but salads, starting today. And you should probably also pick up yoga. There aren’t any doors on these cars, so you have to make your way in through the window, with a sort of a twist-wriggle-slide combo. It isn’t natural or easy, but you’ll want to be careful doing it, because waiting for you on the inside of the car is a wheel-less steel steering shaft, pointed right at your tender regions.
Once you’ve navigated that maneuver, you’ll see that the interior of the vehicle was not designed by someone who valued comfort. The seat is little more than a steel shell. There’s no speedometer or mirrors. Not that you’d be able to turn your head to look at a side mirror. After you’ve found the seat, you put on your helmet, which is then affixed to a HANS device. The HANS holds your head still in the event of a crash in order to avoid the kind of injury that killed Dale Earnhardt. But it also means that you can’t move your head more than a few degrees in any direction.
Spotters observe the action on the course and communicate with each driver via radio. During testing of the radio system, it seems that the volume level was set by a Def Leppard roadie. But it becomes apparent once the engine fires up that that sort of volume is necessary when the interior of the car becomes as loud as the front row of a Def Leppard concert.
Remember the windows? There aren’t any, except for the front and rear windshields. You’d think that having holes on either side of the car, when traveling at triple digit speeds, would keep the car cool. You’d be wrong. In addition to being loud and uncomfortable, it’s hot in there, which isn’t helped by the fact that you’re wearing a fire-proof suit.
Lastly, it’s difficult to operate. The steering is unassisted, as are the brakes. It’s a standard transmission, but there isn’t much shifting to do while on the track. You get up to top gear on the apron – the on-ramp of sorts that leads from pit row to the track – and leave it in gear.
You don’t need to shift, because you never take your foot off of the accelerator. During the pre-race class session, the instructor from the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience explained that the cars are rear-wheel drive, with a fixed rear differential. That means that the rear wheels spin at the same speed. When the accelerator is pressed, the wheels push the car, but if you lift completely off the pedal, the rear wheels will drag due to engine braking. Head into a corner at high speed and let off the go pedal and you could end up facing backwards. The most you do when heading into the corners is let off the gas just a little, and maybe brush the brake pedal with your left foot.
The considerate folks at the Rusty Wallace Experience were kind enough to take the guesswork out of when to slow for the corners and when to mash the gas again. They put colored tape all around the track to indicate the best driving line – high on the straightaways, low in the corners – and the braking and acceleration points. No more than two of the 13 media members were on the track at any given time, and if one was faster than the other, spotters instructed drivers as to when it was safe to pass, or when to let off the gas and pull to the left to allow another driver by.
Of course, NASCAR drivers don’t have that courtesy. Nor do they have colorful tape to show them where to position their car. And they have to fight traffic, at high speed, in hot, noisy, uncomfortable cars, for 301 laps. Compared to them, we had it easy.
Still, it wasn’t easy. In fact, when I was putting down my laps, I saw the caution lights come on, and my spotter calmly talked me back into pit row, where I shut down the car and waited. A second later I saw an ambulance and fire truck head down the track, and photographer Alan MacRae said that it was David McGrath, general manager of the racetrack, who hit a wall in one of the corners. Good news – he said he could see McGrath walking outside of the car, uninjured.
“I drive that track a lot,” McGrath said in a later interview. He figured more than a hundred times, in fact. “I’ll do a lap in any vehicle I’m driving, it could be a Toyota minivan, pickup truck, whatever vehicle I’m driving, if the track’s available, I’ll go out.”
Make no mistake, it’s a fast track, McGrath said. The challenge on such a track is perfecting your run to find every fraction of a second you can shave off your time. The corners are slightly banked, but not so much as others. The steepest banking is 7 degrees, compared to Daytona’s 31 degree pitch. That means it rewards the driver who knows exactly how long to keep their foot in the throttle before the turn, how soon to get back on the gas when it straightens out again, and the team that executes perfect pit stops and fuel strategy.
McGrath said he had a good run going – he wanted to show the media members a thing or two – when his crash occurred. He got a little too aggressive, he said.
“I wanted to set the fastest lap,” he said. “I probably entered the braking zone later than I should have, and the rear end stepped out, and I did a little loop-de-loop.” He was uninjured, and the car was able to be driven off the track.
The fact that he had an incident within his three laps underscores the level of skill on display when the real races are held.
“Certainly to do 301 (laps) is hard on the body. Those NASCAR Cup drivers are professional, they’re the best in the country,” McGrath said, noting that the race takes both physical and mental stamina, as well as skill and discipline. “It’s kind of like driving on 93 North through Concord, at 140 miles per hour. There’s a lot going on.”
It was a lot for me, anyway. When I was eating my lunch after my laps, I noticed the fork shaking in my hand. I was humbled, glad to have survived, and hoping that my fastest lap time wouldn’t be too humiliating.
Nearby, I could hear other competitors talking about how they hit the rev limiter, how the tires were screaming through the corners. “I got everything out of that car,” one of them said. I didn’t hit the limiter, and I’m sure I didn’t tax the tires, and I was worried.
The day ended with an announcement of each competitor’s time, with the slowest time first. I held my breath, but another driver’s name was announced. Then another, and another. I didn’t hear my name called until third from last. To say I was shocked to make the podium would be an understatement of gross proportion. My fastest lap time was 39.27 seconds, with an average speed of 96.99 miles per hour. I was less than a second behind the winner.
Cheers go to Billy Thomas, from WPKZ 105.3 FM in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, whose time of 38.41 seconds earned him a lobster, a gift card to Makris Lobster and Steakhouse, and his name will be added to the Media Challenge trophy. Timmy G. from The Wicked Fast Podcast on 105.7 WROR in Boston, who was the 2019 winner, beat me by a whisker with a time of 39.22 seconds.
As uncomfortable and difficult as the experience was, I would jump at the chance to take another run on the Magic Mile. That trophy has a spot for my name, I reckon.